The Pentagon plans to make sexual harassment a criminal offense following the latest Defense Department report that found reported sexual assaults jumped 38 percent in a two-year period.
At the recommendation of the Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force — formed earlier this year at the request of Air Force veteran Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — the Pentagon will take steps “to seek a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment,” according to a statement Thursday by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Shanahan said. “We must address how we are structured and how we resource efforts to combat this scourge. We must improve our culture to treat each other with dignity and respect and hold ourselves, and each other, more accountable.”
Shanahan's remarks came on the same day the Defense Department released a report from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office that found the number of reported cases of sexual assault in the military jumped to 6,053 in 2018 from about 4,800 in 2016.
Officials estimate that the number of assaults in the military last year is closer to 20,500 cases, up from 14,900 such cases in 2016.
“Our military justice system is unparalleled and unique in that it treats behaviors counter to good order and discipline as crimes, while providing comprehensive support to victims throughout the process,” Shanahan writes. “Remaining unparalleled requires constant scrutiny and reevaluation to identify necessary areas for reform and improvement.”
Shanahan also announced plans to train commanders “to prevent and properly respond to sexual assault,” a new program to “improve the identification of repeat offenders,” and “efforts to select recruits of the highest character.”
The announcement received a tepid response from some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
McSally, who revealed in March during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing that she was once raped by a superior officer — said in a call with reporters that she agreed with the recommendations but that the “work is not done.”
“You’ll see us working our part into legislation to be introduced in the next few weeks,” McSally said. “We expect our military to be better.”